MEMORY LEAP

A strange portal leads to a very dangerous place and causes a memory loss. Or possibly something worse... S&S are sent to investigate and fix the anomaly, but soon the hunters turn into preys.

CHAPTER 1

It was a sunny Sunday of June, the perfect day for the orienteering race that was taking place in a renowned holiday resort up in the mountains. The forest was lush and in riotous blooming. The merry chirping of the various types of birds was periodically disturbed by a competitor passing by, map and compass in hand.

From time to time one of them took the wrong turn, and ended up in a narrow opening between two tall trees. And as soon as he passed the trees, he disappeared.

A very attractive woman and a somber looking man appeared in the forest, not too far from the mysterious passage. She was clad in a smart blue dress perfectly matching her eyes, while he was wearing grey slacks and a lighter grey polo shirt, same color of his eyes. She was glad he had decided to wear something different from the usual suit he favored, and she was admiring how the polo shirt was clinging to his well built torso.

The man didn't notice her appreciative look, however. Those cold eyes were looking around, searching.

"Did you find it?" The woman's voice was pleasant, her British accent perfect.

"Not yet." The man's voice was also pleasant, but had a sharper edge.

"It should be somewhere around here. I'm pretty sure of that."

He looked at her. "What do you feel?"

"Time being tampered with, although I cannot determine the exact source and nature of the phenomenon. But I know it's close."

He started walking around, moving with care in the thriving vegetation. She followed him, skillfully walking in heels a tad too high for that type of ground.

"We probably should wait for the anomaly to occur again." She said.

"Yes," he agreed. "There's no other way. I hear someone approaching. We must not be seen. Hide behind a tree or a bush: your blue dress is far too noticeable." She smiled at the implied criticism at her choice of clothing, still knowing that he rather liked the dress she was wearing for this particular assignment.

They hid and waited for the next competitor to pass by. It was a girl, who never realized she was being watched. She stopped and looked at her map with a worried frown. She knew she took a wrong turn somewhere, but she just couldn't find the right path. Sill looking at the map, she stepped between the two trees, and promptly disappeared.

The two time agents left their hiding places: they just found the anomaly they were looking for.

Steel said: "We need to know where it leads to and what happens to the people that get inside."

"Short of getting inside ourselves, which I would not recommend right now, maybe we should go to the nearest inhabited area and see if something unusual is happening there."

The man looked annoyed, and she smiled: she knew that he didn't like dealing with the humans. They seriously stretched his patience, which was known to be very thin. He did not complain, though, so they started walking in unison, only to disappear after two steps.

They rematerialized inside a small quaint village, in a corner of a momentarily deserted street. They briefly took their bearings, then the woman moved toward what sounded like a gathering of some sort.

After a few turns, they noticed a crowd filling the main road, where a large banner was hanging from two poles, with the word FINISH written on it in big, red letters.

Whenever a competitor passed it, people clapped and yelled enthusiastically.

The woman explained: "It's a race. People are supposed to pass the banner to be ranked. The first to pass it wins."

The man looked baffled: "What is the purpose of this race?"

"Just prove that you're better than everybody else."

"It only proves that you're faster, not better. Another foolish human activity." he grumbled, eliciting another smile from the woman. They mingled with the crowd and tried to look inconspicuous, although the woman - who was tall, blonde and quite beautiful - drew many masculine looks.

Suddenly their attention was drawn to a different, smaller group of people gathered a few feet from the arrival point of the race. The people were surrounding a woman. As soon as the two agents approached the crowd, they immediately recognized her as the girl who disappeared between the trees right before their eyes. She looked confused and completely lost. The people were saying: "She's just like the others, she can't remember what happened in the last few days". And, indeed, the girl was mumbling, bewildered: "Where am I? What am I doing here? Who are you?"

The man elbowed his way to the girl, the woman at his heels. When they reached her, he unceremoniously took hold of her arm and tried to lead her away from the crowd. "We need to talk to you."

But the people around them protested: "Hey, who do you think you are? You can't just take her away like that."

Her partner tried to smooth down ruffled feathers: "We are psychiatrists. We might be able to help her, but we need to bring her some place quiet and let her take her bearings. Can you suggest a proper place?" She knew that, by involving the people in their action, she was automatically preventing any more protests.

A man replied: "Yes, you could go to the pub over there. Everybody is watching the race and it is completely empty, except for the bartender."

She asked: "How many other people turned up in the same conditions?"

"She's the fourth. Same thing for every single one of them: they can't remember what happened during the last week or so. And they all appear out of the blue in the same spot. I don't think she needs a psychiatrist; you should probably take her to some UFO expert."

"We'll keep it in mind." she answered, in a serious face. Her partner's voice talked in her mind: [I would love to hear what a UFO expert would think about us!]

She couldn't suppress a smile. She addressed the girl: "You should come with us, my dear: we want to help you recover your memory."

The girl was still confused, but she couldn't resist the reassuring smile of that nice looking lady.

The three extricated themselves from the crowd and went into the nearby pub, which in fact didn't have any patrons lingering at the tables. They sat at a table near the window, ordered some water and started talking. The blond woman introduced herself and her companion: "My name is Sapphire, and he's Steel. Do you remember your name?"

"Yes, my name is Stephanie Lairs."

"What else do you remember?"

"You see, it's funny, but I remember everything, except what I'm doing here and why I am dressed like this. Was I running in some kind of race?"

"Yes, it was an orienteering race. You were one of the competitors."

"You know, I remember I planned to participate to an orienteering race, but that's supposed to be in 6 days from now."

"What day do you think is today?"

"Why, it's the 23rd, of course. Isn't it?"

The man interjected: "Afraid not. Today's the 30th. You lost one week of your life. Do you remember anything right before you lost your memory?"

"I'm sorry, no. My last conscious memory is... let me think. Yes, last thing I remember is having dinner with my boyfriend at the Italian place we both love so much."

The man pondered on the girl's words. "You last conscious memory... that's it! Sapphire, do you think you could hypnotize her to access her subconscious memory? It might be retaining something of importance."

"Yes, I could do that." She addressed the girl, beaming her most reassuring smile at her. "Do you feel like trying? We might be able to recover some of your memory."

"Sure, why not? I would do anything to know what has happened to me."

"Very well. Just look at my eyes and try to exclude everything else from your mind."

Sapphire's eyes started glowing an uncanny blue, but the girl never realized it: her mind was already under her full control.

Sapphire's voice was mesmerizing, as well as her eyes. "You are very relaxed. You feel good. Your mind is at ease."

The girl's expression relaxed, and her body slumped slightly on the chair. "Yes, I feel good."

"You are getting ready for your orienteering race. You will soon participate to that race. Do you remember that?"

"Yes, I remember. The orienteering race. It will be in one week."

"That's right. And tonight you are going to that Italian restaurant with your boyfriend, aren't you?"

"Oh yes, the Italian place. I love that restaurant so much! But I must try not to eat too much, because of the race, you know?"

"Of course. Now think about it. Do you remember when you started the race?"

"I... no, I can't seem to remember. No, I'm positive it hasn't started yet. It's in one week."

"What do you remember after the dinner with your boyfriend?"

"We went to his place to have a drink, and then... and then..." Her features contracted, and she fought to recover her memories. "Nothing. Nothing happened after that. Why I'm not at my boyfriend's place? What am I doing here? Where am I?"

"You are in a safe place, with friends. We're taking care of you. You feel good and relaxed."

The girl's expression loosened up again. Sapphire's, on the other hand, became tenser. Her voice resonated inside Steel's mind: [That's highly unusual. She should be able to remember now.]

Also Steel spoke mentally: [Then why isn't she remembering?]

[The only possible reason is also the most disturbing: she hasn't lost her memories, she has lost the actual week.]

Steel was silent for a whole minute. When he spoke again, his voice sounded somber: [That means that whatever it was that swallowed her when she disappeared between those two trees, it stole her a week of her life. If it did the same with the other people...]

Sapphire finished the sentence: [It means that something, or someone, is feeding on time itself.]

Steel abruptly stood up and said, while he was already getting out of the door: "Release her. We don't need her anymore."

Sapphire was forced to speak in his mind to be heard, since he was already walking briskly on the sidewalk: [Where are you going?]

[I want to speak with the other three people who lost their memories.]

While Sapphire slowly brought the girl back from her hypnotic state, Steel went back to the arrival area, where most of the people were still gathered, since the race was still in progress. He recognized one of the men who helped the girl when she appeared, and asked him: "Where are the other persons who lost their memories?"

The man, slightly taken aback by Steel's curt manners and especially by his cold eyes, promptly answered: "They were all brought to the first aid station that has been set up for the competitors near the arrival area."

Without bothering to thank the man, he quickly walked to the area specifically appointed by the organizers of the race. There he rapidly found the people he was looking for: they were easily recognizable by the lost look in their eyes. They were two men and another girl. Steel stood in front of them, waiting for his partner, who he knew was on her way to reach him. He definitely preferred she did the talking: he wasn't very patient with human beings, especially those who were slower than usual. Patience was not one of his virtues.

When Sapphire arrived, she sat in front of one of the men, beamed her most reassuring smile, and asked him:

"Hello. My name is Sapphire. I know that you just had a very bad experience, and I would like to hear it."

The man, impressed by that blond beauty, tried to be as helpful as he could. "Nice to meet you. My name is Brett, and I would love to tell you everything about my predicament, but you see, I seem to have lost my most recent memories."

"I know that. Just tell me what is the last thing you remember. I would really appreciate it."

"Well, all I know is that I was training for the orienteering race, and decided to go to bed early, so I had a very light dinner, watched a little TV and then feel asleep in front of it. Next thing I know, I find myself at a race I don't remember having run, surrounded by people who keep asking me where I appeared from and what I remember."

"I see. Very frustrating. And tell me, when exactly did you fall asleep in front of the TV? I mean the date."

"Oh, that at least I remember: it was on the 23rd."

"Thank you very much, Brett. I'm sure you will recover your memories soon."

The man looked discouraged. "I'm not really counting on it. Oh, and don't bother to ask the other guys over there: their memories date back to the 23rd, too."

Sapphire stood and approached her partner. "The 23rd. All of them. They all lost one week of their life."

Steel was lost in thought and didn't answer. Sapphire did not intrude. She knew that look very well: a plan was developing in his quick-thinking mind.

When he finally spoke, though, she didn't like what he proposed: "We need to find out what happens in there, Sapphire."

Her face grew somber. "You are not planning to get in that trap, are you?"

"Of course I am. How else do you expect to discover what is going on? Stand in front of the trees and nicely ask them?"

Without waiting for her reply, he walked away from the crowd, heading toward an empty alley, where she knew he was going to teleport back to the forest. She had no choice but to unhappily follow him, thinking for the nth time that he was far too reckless for her taste, or for his own safety.

They rematerialized in the exact spot where the gateway was. Steel suspiciously walked around the two trees, ready to react to anything out of the ordinary, but nothing happened.

"The portal probably only activates by stepping through the trees." Sapphire said.

"Yes." Steel agreed. "Can you try a probe? But just touch one of the trees, not both of them at the same time. You could trigger the reaction."

"All right, I'll try." Sapphire approached one of the two trees, and cautiously placed a hand on the trunk. Her eyes started glowing an unnatural shade of blue.

"All I can feel is a very powerful source of energy."

"What kind of energy?" Steel asked.

"It's hard to say. I am going to probe deeper."

Steel protested: "No, Sapphire, it might be dangerous. Get away from..."

He could not complete his sentence: a bright light, not unlike a small thunderbolt, followed by a loud crack, violently hurled the woman back, stunning her.

Steel was immediately at her side. "Are you all right?" She was one of the few people who managed to tinge his voice with a worried tone. She rapidly recovered, though, and slowly stood up with her partner's help. When she raised her hand, they both could see that her palm was badly burnt. Steel delicately took it in his hand, careful not to touch the burns.

"Are you hurting?"

Sapphire shook her head, but he could see that she was gritting her teeth. She was in pain, but was too professional to show it. In a rare moment of gentleness, Steel broadcasted a soothing feeling through their mental link, and hold her hand while the elemental healing process quickly repaired the damaged skin. When the pain subsided, he released her hand, and she smiled thankfully.

He said: "No more probes. I'm going through the portal and see what happens."

When he saw that she was about to protest, he cut her off. "Don't worry, I won't let it steal time away from me."

"I wasn't about to ask you not to go in there, I was about to suggest that I go instead."

Steel was taken aback. "You? Why should you go in my place?"

"Simply because I can do a spot analysis of whatever I will find inside the portal. Suppose it's not a physical entity: you won't be able to see it, and you will miss it entirely. I, on the other hand, will able to analyze it even if it's incorporeal."

Steel hesitated: "It's too dangerous, Sapphire."

"I must accept that you do something dangerous, but you won't allow me to do the same? Don't you think that's rather unfair? Or maybe you think that I am not adequate for the task?"

Steel had to admit that she had perfectly set him up. He had no logical reason, other than his concern for her safety, to prevent her from taking his place. She also was quite right: he lacked her probing ability, which would be essential in case of an incorporeal entity.

"Very well", he conceded. "You go in. But be careful, Sapphire. Please."

Every time he worried for her, she knew that his occasional gruffness with her was only a facade. The real Steel was much gentler than he would care to admit.

She smiled to reassure him, and slowly approached the portal.

"I'll try to stay in only for five minutes, but I'm not sure I will be able to come back from the way in. If I don't reappear here, meet me at the race finish line."

He just nodded, with a somewhat unhappy expression in the grey eyes, and looked while his partner stepped between the two trees and promptly disappeared.

CHAPTER TWO

The first thing Sapphire saw when she passed through the portal was the fog. A thick, grey fog that completely surrounded her, whirling and curling around her almost as a living being. She tried to advance, but she soon lost her bearings completely: it was impossible to orientate in such a dense formation. She had no choice but to stand still and rely on her probing skills. Her eyes turned a brighter blue and she tried to analyze the fog surrounding her. But as soon as she started getting a feedback, she also realized what the fog was: an alarm system to warn some kind of entity that someone had stepped through the portal.

She immediately compared it to a spider and its web. Of course, she was the prey. Now the question was: was the spider poisonous?

She felt it approaching: the fog was somewhat thinner now, as if giving way to its owner. But she still couldn't see clearly, and she never realized that the threat was approaching her from behind. The moment she perceived its presence, it was too late: she felt an incredibly powerful entity invading her mind and taking control of her body. A terrified scream was her last conscious action.

ooo

Steel waited for five minutes, but Sapphire did not come out from the portal, so he decided to teleport to the town.

As soon as he got there, though, he realized that his partner was nowhere to be seen. He asked around if a blond woman clad in a blue dress appeared out of thin air like the other people who lost their memories, but all he got were negative answers. He waited ten more minutes, then decided to teleport back to the forest.

When he got there, he knew for sure that something terrible had happened to Sapphire. Not only she was uncharacteristically late, but he was also starting to harbor a very ominous feeling. His instinct never failed when Sapphire was involved.

He tried to call her mentally, but didn't get any answer, not even a faint glimmer of her lively mind. It was deeply upsetting to feel completely cut off from her: even when they were physically apart, their mental connection was a tangible presence constantly linking them.

He waited five more minutes, then decided to step in and look for her inside the portal. He was about to walk through the trees, when a sudden wind pushed him back. The portal opened, roaring, and a blue-clad figure started to come out from the thick fog that was pouring out from the other side. Sapphire. Or what looked like Sapphire, but didn't act like her.

Everything about her was wrong: her expression, her way of moving, even her aura. And, above all, her eyes. They weren't blue anymore: they were an alien shade of purple. Steel tested their mental link, but all he could hear in return was a disconcerting silence. He tried to call her out loud. "Sapphire? What's wrong? What happened in there? Sapphire!"

She didn't seem to hear him; she just kept approaching him with that blank expression on her fine features. When they were almost a foot apart, she raised her arms, as if she wanted to touch him. He instinctively took a step back, but then he felt ridiculous: he couldn't be afraid of Sapphire. Unless, he thought, she wasn't really her. At least, not completely. Maybe she was controlled by the entity inhabiting the portal. If that was the case, maybe he should let her touch him: he might be able to analyze the entity through a direct contact, maybe even communicate with it.

So he stood his ground while Sapphire got closer, and didn't move out of the way when her extended hands touched him. The moment she grabbed him by his shoulders, he knew that he had made a terrible mistake: whatever was controlling Sapphire's body was now sucking up all his memories.

He tried to yank away from her hold, but he soon found out that he couldn't: her strength was outstanding and he could not cope. He felt like a sponge being brutally squeezed.

He soon realized that the entity was not just sucking up his memories: it was taking time away from him. Years were taken by the tens in a few seconds, and all his long experience as a time agent was rapidly fading, sucked up by the entity inhabiting his partner's body.

His brain started to shut off, leaving way to his parasympathetic system. As soon as he stopped acting rationally, his primeval survival instinct kicked in, and his body temperature started to drop dramatically, rapidly approaching absolute zero.

Sapphire was still grabbing him and soon began to be covered with frost, but Steel never realized it: he was quickly blacking out, yielding to the year loss and the temperature drop. When he collapsed, he broke Sapphire's spasmodic hold, and they both fell to the ground, unconscious.

CHAPTER THREE

The first thing Steel felt when he came to, was a life-saving warmth. His frozen heart started pumping again, pushing slowly-thawing blood along his veins. His nerve endings were receiving the brain's orders again, and he gradually managed to flex his muscles. The first things he wanted to move were his eyes. With a great effort, he managed to open them, but he had to blink several times before being able to see through the haze of his frozen pupils. When the image got clearer, he distinguished the worried face of an unknown man. He was huge, but his black eyes were gentle, so Steel didn't classify him as a threat. The man spoke with a deep baritone: "What happened, Steel? Why did you attack Sapphire?"

Steel forced his vocal cords to speak, although his voice sounded coarse to his own ears. "Who are you? Who's Sapphire?"

The other man opened his eyes wide, his bewildered expression suggesting that Steel was supposed to know both of them. "You don't know who we are?"

"No. Should I?"

The big man's expression saddened. "Yes, you should. My name is Lead, and that woman over there is Sapphire, your partner. We are all colleagues."

Steel looked at the woman sprawled on the floor, still covered in frost. She was beautiful, but he was sure he didn't know her.

"Sorry, I can remember neither of you. What's wrong with her?"

Lead let go of Steel's arm, which he had been holding for the whole conversation. Steel immediately missed the comforting source of warmth that revived him, but now his body was able to cope with the temperature drop.

The big man turned to the woman, and gently enveloped her in his muscular arms. He said: "She was touching you when you dropped your body temperature to absolute zero. It's a miracle she's still alive, but I'm not sure I will be able to revive her. Her core is not made of steel like yours. She's a gem, and I cannot warm her up. We will have to find some source of heat."

Steel asked: "Why don't we light a fire?"

"You know how to do it?"

"I think so, yes. Help me up."

Marveling at Steel's request of assistance, Lead took hold of him with one of his huge arms, and easily lifted him from the ground. Steel cautiously tested his limbs before wandering off in search of broken branches. He gathered enough to light a good fire, then went looking for a specific type of stone. He couldn't remember its name, but he knew that it could produce sparks when rubbed against another rock.

He silently applied to the task, while Lead was hugging the woman tight in an attempt at keeping her warm. Under his hands, a bright fire soon started to blaze, its lively flames in open contrast with the men's somber faces.

They brought the woman near the fire, with Lead still hugging her protectively. She was so thin and haggard, she looked like a doll in his arms.

Steel sat by the fire, grateful for the warmth his body was still demanding, and looked at the woman in the giant's arms. He probed deep in his memory, but she wasn't there. Yet, somehow, she did look familiar, but the feeling was so distant and indistinct, that he gave up any attempt at remembering.

So he asked the man who called himself Lead: "You said we are colleagues. What do we do?"

"We are time agents. We regulate time anomalies. You and Sapphire are partners, you have been working together for such a long time, I wonder how you could have forgotten her. Also you and I have know each other long. What happened to you, Steel?"

The blond man shook his head, looking frustrated: "I have no idea. I can't remember anything, except my name." Then he looked at Sapphire again. "She's very beautiful. Will she survive?"

Lead's expression looked sad, although Steel knew, somehow, that it used to be much jollier. "I don't know. She's the expert in rescuing frozen people, namely you. Whenever you wander off and ice yourself up without me around to insulate you, she has to keep you warm until I show up. And she's not just beautiful: she's a wonderfully talented operator, and you two are our most valuable team. You are very fond of each other. Well, used to be." he corrected.

Steel thought that something really terrible must have happened to force him to hurt such a graceful creature. Who, among other things, was his partner. The problem was that he didn't even remember being a time agent. He vaguely knew what they were, but he could not recollect being one of them.

While he was lost in thought, Lead was studying his face. "You know, Steel, I'm pretty sure you are looking much younger than usual."

Steel was confused. "What?"

"You were much older last time I saw you. Our job certainly doesn't help keeping young, except for our Sapphire, here. I suspect you haven't just lost your memory: you have lost actual years of life. You have reversed to youth."

Steel was dumbfounded: "How can that be?"

"Sorry, you're asking the wrong person. The only one who could give us some answers is Sapphire."

"How is she?"

Lead shook his head. "Not good, I'm afraid. She's not warming up."

Steel considered. "You just said that we were very close. She might react to my touch. Why don't you let me hold her?"

Lead looked suspiciously at his fellow operator. "You are the one who did this to her. How can I trust you?"

"You will have to believe my word that I won't hurt her again." The bigger man still didn't look convinced, so he added: "Look, Lead, I don't know what happened, but I swear I haven't got the slightest animosity toward her now. Quite the opposite: I do want to help her. I can't stand the thought of staying here and just look at her slowly slipping away. You said we were a great team: well, then, give me a chance to assist my partner."

Lead decided he sounded sincere enough, and gently handed over the woman to him. Steel sat closer to the fire, holding Sapphire in his lap. The feeling was somewhat familiar. She was so cold and looked so helpless, he couldn't resist stroking her beautiful face, still covered with a thin layer of frost. He called her in a quiet voice: "Sapphire? Can you hear me?"

A soon as he heard his own voice calling her, he instinctively knew he used to communicate in a different manner. A mental call came out of his mind by its own accord: [Sapphire?]

The woman stirred, and slowly turned her face toward him.

Lead exulted. "You did it, Steel! You reached her mind! Keep calling her, you must bring her mind back to life. Her body will follow."

Steel closed his eyes to better concentrate. [Sapphire, can you hear me? It's Steel, your partner. Please, Sapphire, come back.]

He got no reactions, this time, so he sent out a louder thought: [Sapphire! You've got to force your mind out of this state. I know you can do it! SAPPHIRE!]

His mental call was so loud, that it even startled Lead. But he wasn't the only one to hear it: the woman moved in Steel's arms again, and he could feel her temperature starting to rise ever so slightly.

He smiled to the other man. "She's warming up. Her mind is coming back."

He hugged her tighter to lend her some of his warmth, and soon the frost still covering her face and hands melted. When her body temperature reached a life-sustaining level, her eyes began to flutter.

When she finally opened them, Steel wondered at their color: they were the nicest blue, like the stone she was named after. He smiled broadly at her, and said: "I'm glad you're back, Sapphire. How do you feel?"

She looked at him with a puzzled expression and said, in a coarse voice. "What happened to you, Steel? You look – and feel – different."

"I'm afraid you are the one who will have to tell me what happened. You see, I seem to have lost my memory, and apparently not only that."

The woman made a recollection effort, while extricating herself from Steel's embrace. She flexed her reviving muscles and sat by the fire, a pensive expression on her delicate features. She looked at the giant operator. "Why are you here, Lead?"

The giant flashed a happy smile at her. "My dear Sapphire, it's so nice to have you back among the living. You see, the authority sent me here on a red code, and the first thing I saw when I teleported was the two of you on the ground, unconscious. You were apparently frozen by Steel, since you looked like you were grabbing him. Now, your partner here doesn't remember anything, and he seems to have reversed to a younger self, so it's really up to your own memory now. I sincerely hope you haven't lost it, either."

Sapphire managed a weak smile. "No, I remember, but I need time to give some sort of sense to my memories. Let me see... The last thing I remember very clearly is stepping into the portal."

Lead interrupted her. "What portal?"

Sapphire pointed at an area not far from where they were. "You see those two trees over there? Well, that's a portal, and it leads straight into a time anomaly. We decided to enter it to analyze it, and I volunteered."

Lead was surprised: "You volunteered? It's not like Steel to let you take such a risk."

She smiled sheepishly. "You're right. I sort of... imposed my decision on him."

Lead laughed knowingly, and just said: "Go on."

"All I can remember of that place is the fog. There was fog everywhere, and I didn't see it coming: the entity. It attacked me from behind, and took possession of both my mind and body. It forced me out of the portal, it wanted me to touch Steel and steal his memory. No, wait, it wasn't just his memories: the entity eats up time. It stole Steel's time!"

Lead commented pensively: "That's why you got frozen: Steel probably entered a self-preservation state and his body temperature dropped on its own. He didn't attack you, he was just acting out of self-defense. The entity didn't know what was going on and didn't let go. Well, I must admit that sapphires are much more resilient stones than I though." He added, smiling warmly at the woman.

She smiled back, and looked at Steel. "What do you remember?"

He looked back at her with inconceivably younger eyes. "Nothing. Only my name and same fuzzy impressions."

The woman frowned. "The entity stole your whole experience as a time agent."

Steel averted his eyes. "Yes. I'm no use to anyone now."

She approached him and put a comforting hand on his arm. "You still have your powers, and you still have me and Lead. We will recover the time the entity stole from you."

"How?"

She smiled reassuringly, although she knew that he was the plan-devising party of their team. "We will find a way, together."

He smiled back, and Sapphire marveled at the candid quality of that uncharacteristic smile.

CHAPTER FOUR

They decided that the only way to recover the time stolen from Steel was to directly face the entity, and the only possible solution was entering the portal all together. To avoid getting lost in the fog, Lead embraced both Sapphire and Steel in a bear hug and stepped into the gateway, lifting them like two weightless dolls.

As soon as they entered the foggy environment, Sapphire warned: "Be careful, this fog will alert the entity that we have stepped into the portal. It may come any minute now."

The three agents waited nervously, but nothing happened.

Steel asked: "Well? What are we supposed to see?"

She answered: "I don't know. I never actually saw the creature, I only sensed its presence one split second before it attacked me. But it should be here, by now."

Steel pondered: "It just stole most of my adult life: how many years are we talking about, approximately?"

Lead said: "Hard to say: could be anything between four to five centuries. You are still relatively young."

"Then the entity might be busy digesting all those years. How would you feel after an unusually lavish meal?"

Sapphire brightened: "Probably very sleepy. You're right, Steel: it could be sleeping somewhere."

He answered: "Most likely in its den. We've got to find it now, while it's not alert, and destroy it."

Lead warned: "Let's not talk about destroying it before we have recovered your time, Steel. If you kill it, you might lose your experience forever."

Steel's expression was unreadable. "I don't care. Our top priority is destroying the creature to prevent it from making any more damage. Recovering my stolen years is less important."

Sapphire started to see why he had grown to be one of the top elements of their community: he was totally dedicated even before becoming an agent.

Lead asked: "How do you propose to find it? It's not easy to move around in this fog."

Steel answered, looking at his partner-to-be: "I seem to understand that you have special probing abilities, is that correct?"

"Yes. Do you want me to try and search for the creature from here?"

"Can you do it?"

"I'm not sure. I usually need to touch something to make a probe."

A glimmer of the older Steel flashed in those resolute grey eyes. "You can do it, Sapphire! I know you can."

She automatically set to the task. She concentrated, and her eyes immediately turned a brighter blue. Steel heard a rhythmic vibration resonate around her, and felt the power waves she was sending out. The skills of that woman were outstanding: he wondered whether she realized it or if one of his tasks was to push her beyond her limits, till the last drop of energy.

When she started to tremble with the effort, her eyes lost their alien glow and she closed them, exhausted.

Steel urged: "Well?"

Sapphire recognized her partner's relentlessness. "I did feel something, but it was very unclear. It was comparable to a source of heat."

Lead offered: "Better than nothing. Maybe we should investigate."

Steel agreed: "By all means. Can you lead us, Sapphire?"

"I think so."

She headed left and kept following the same direction, moving resolutely in the thick fog, the two men at her heels.

After less than half an hour, she slowed down her pace. "We are getting close. I can definitely feel something now."

Steel concentrated. "Yes, I can feel it, too. It's not just heat: it's a live energy, but coming from many different sources."

She agreed: "Yes. So many of them. But one is the strongest, and is behind all the weakest ones. They are very close, watch your step."

The fog was getting much thinner, allowing them to finally see the environment surrounding them. They were walking on a bare ground, flat and covered with large rocks. No vegetation thrived in such a barren land. The whole area gave off a sense of desolation that increased the feeling of danger the three agents were experiencing.

As soon as Sapphire, who was still leading the team, turned around a particularly large rock, she stopped short, and a loud gasp escaped her mouth. She shivered and cuddled herself.

Steel asked, worried: "What's wrong, Sapphire?"

She pointed her chin straight ahead and said, in a very small voice: "Look."

The two men cautiously peeked behind the rock, and what they saw froze their blood.

Thousands of round white shapes were laying on the ground in clusters.

Lead was the first to utter the word they were all refusing to say out loud: "They're eggs."

Steel added: "And some of them have already hatched." Then he pointed at some multi-legged creatures roaming about the fragments of some open eggs.

Sapphire said: "They're really spiders. How can that be?"

Steel asked: "What do you mean?"

She explained: "When I first entered the portal and found the fog, I compared it to a cobweb. I even wondered if it was inhabited by a poisonous spider. And now I find out that they are spiders. It can't be a coincidence."

Steel commented: "I don't believe in coincidences. Either you received a mental image of the creature, or it is using the image of its appearance it found in your mind to manifest itself."

His no-nonsense voice and his logical reasoning infused some confidence in Sapphire. She realized it was something she used to rely on, maybe too often.

Then Lead said: "That's how it's using all the energy it obtained from stealing Steel's time: not to sleep, but to reproduce."

A sudden thought made Steel blanch. He asked: "What happens if that creature's offspring have the same power to steal time as their mother?"

Sapphire and Lead just stared at him, dumbfounded by the implications.

Ever the down-to-earth element, Steel said, with a resolute tone: "They must not be allowed to hatch. We must destroy them. All of them."

Lead asked, in a flat tone: "How?"

Sapphire answered: "Eggs need warmth to hatch. Did you notice that this area is much warmer than the surrounding environment? There is no fog here: the fog absorbs heat. If we somehow remove the warmth, they will not be able to open."

Lead commented: "Sorry, I forgot my portable air-conditioner at home." And then he could not resist laughing at his own joke.

Steel scowled at him, and he immediately stopped laughing. But then he added, smiling warmly: "I've missed that look, Steel!"

Even Sapphire could not suppress a smile, then she said: "But we have our own portable air-conditioner right here, Lead." And she pointed at Steel.

The blond agent felt quite uneasy under their scrutiny, and commented: "I might have lost my memory, but I'm positive I cannot freeze an area this big." Then he added, with a questioning look: "Or can I?"

Sapphire answered: "As far as I know, you have never done anything like that, but I must say that you have never tried, either."

Lead offered: "Maybe if you freeze yourself up and then just walk around the eggs, the temperature drop will be enough to stop the hatching process. I will provide you with enough insulation to prolong your stamina."

Steel didn't need any more encouragement: "Very well. Give me a few minutes." He stilled and closed his eyes, preparing his body for the temperature drop.

When he was ready, he moved toward the eggs, with Lead trailing behind, holding his shoulders. They slowly walked on that white landscape, spreading freezing waves around them. From time to time, a baby spider tried to sting Steel's feet, but it got frozen.

When they were approximately half way, a sudden earsplitting shriek made their blood curdle. Sapphire said, in a small voice: "The mother just realized what's going on. It's coming to stop us."

Although they had been warned, they were not prepared for what they saw: a huge spider, the size of a three-storey house, was towering in front of them, its deadly stings ready to hit. Its multifaceted eyes reflected their image hundreds of times, and its huge mouth clicked nervously, almost foretasting its preys.

Sapphire's face grew pale, and even Steel hesitated. He said: "I haven't got enough freezing power left to stop it."

Lead asked: "How can we fight such a big creature?"

Steel was thinking furiously. He intensely looked at Sapphire: "This is just a projection, remember? It's not really a spider, and its size is fake, too. Can you show us its real shape?"

She nodded, nervously. "Yes, but I need time. I cannot concentrate while that horrible thing is about to attack us."

Steel's eyes were as cold as ice. "I will give you the time you need. Just make sure you don't waste your chance." Then he turned and moved toward the spider.

Sapphire grabbed his arm, stopping him, and asked: "Wait! What do you think you're doing? It will steal time from you again."

He gently removed her hand but, before releasing it, he lightly kissed it. "I've already lost most of my adult life. What difference will it make if it takes a few more years? Please, Sapphire, let me be of help." He looked into her eyes one last time, then turned and slowly walked toward the creature.

Lead placed a comforting hand over her shoulder. "He's always our brave Steel, isn't he?"

She commented, in a worried tone: "He's too rash for his own good."

Lead answered: "His own good is not his top priority. That's why he will be one of our best agents. Get ready, Sapphire."

She concentrated as hard as she could. Her eyes turned a brighter blue, but the process was disrupted by her seeing Steel grabbed by the creature's dreadful paws, which slowly dragged him toward the disgustingly slobbering mouth. She yelled: "Steel! No!", but Lead grabbed her by her shoulders, placing himself between her and that appalling sight. He said, in a soothing voice: "It's not real, Sapphire! It's not really a spider, it's not going to eat him up. Don't look, and just concentrate!"

She did as Lead said, not wanting to waste the chance Steel was giving them, and her eyes started glowing again.

Meanwhile Steel saw the mouth of the spider getting closer and closer, and in a last attempt at self-preservation tried to lower his body temperature again, although he knew that without Lead insulating him, he would soon be helpless. The creature touched his mind, probing and searching, but it found only frozen thoughts. Its attempt at stealing more years away from him was only partially successful. When it couldn't bear the cold anymore, it let go of Steel's body, which slumped to the floor, shivering and powerless.

But before it could turn to the other two elements, Sapphire managed to reach inside its mind, and got hold of its real appearance. She clung to it and didn't let go, forcing the creature to reveal its true aspect. Shrieking, the colossal spider slowly morphed and turned into a much smaller shape. It was everything but a spider: